VIENNA (Jan. 25)
A quarter of a million Austrians demonstrated against racism, Nazism and xenophobia last weekend in the same square where a crowd of similar size cheered Adolf Hitler 55 years ago.
The peaceful demonstration, organized by a new Austrian movement dedicated to preventing the right-wing extremism and violence appearing now in Germany, was dubbed “Sea of Lights.”
Throngs of people carried small flashlights to serve as the light against the darkness of radicalism and neo-Nazism, explained leaders of SOS-Mitmensch (SOS-Fellow Human).
In the infamous Heldenplatz — the same spot where Hitler addressed the Viennese masses after Nazi Germany annexed Austria in the Anschluss in 1938 — crowds gathered Saturday to hear speakers with quite a different message.
In fact, one of the keynote speakers was Paul Chaim Eisenberg, Austria’s chief rabbi.
After warning the crowd against the dangers of racism, Eisenberg, along with the popular singer who goes by the name Jazz-Gitti, sang the traditional Hebrew song “Heveinu Shalom Aleichem” (We Bring Peace Upon You).
The “Sea of Lights” demonstration was the largest the city has seen since 1945. The size was seen by some as significant in light of Austria’s difficulty in coming to grips with its collaboration with the Nazis.
“The people of Austria have understood this message, and they have signaled their yearning for tolerance and togetherness,” said Cardinal Franz Koenig of Vienna.
The crowd included tens of thousands of people from the various provinces, who poured into Vienna for the demonstration.
SOS-Mitmensch, founded by the poet and writer Andreas Heller, aims to take preventive action by speaking out against racism and xenophobia, before rightists gain power and resort to violence, as they have in Germany.
The organization says it wants to “give a chance and a voice to the silent and decent majority in Austria.”
The movement has been joined by individual officials of the Austrian government, members of Parliament, high-ranking representatives of the church and many youth organizations.
Leaders of SOS-Mitmensch were goaded into taking action after seeing the growing presence of rightist voices, such as the populist leader of the right-wing Freedom Party, Jorg Haider.
Haider’s party has initiated a referendum, to be held later this month, that calls for stricter laws in regard to the current influx of foreigners.